Keeping Students First

Most board members say they ran for the board to make a difference for the students of their community. They want to make a contribution to help students learn more and be better prepared for success. They understand ensuring the academic success of students is a fundamental function of public education and have a desire to put students first.

Today, that basic value of putting students first means boards must be tightly focused on improving results for each and every student. The Iowa Association of School Boards conducted research, providing insights into the most important roles of the school board in improving student learning. That research, called the Iowa Lighthouse Research, indicates school boards have five important roles in leading for improved student achievement.

Key Roles of the Board

  • Set and communicate high expectations for student learning with clear goals and a focus on strengthening instruction.
  • Support conditions for success through board actions and decisions.
  • Hold the system accountable to reach student learning goals.
  • Build the collective commitment of community and staff to achieve the student learning goals.
  • Learn together as a whole team to influence the student learning goals.

Setting and Communicating High Expectations

Commitment to high expectations is a foundation for improving student learning. Studies of districts that have made significant gains in student achievement are consistent in identifying that district leaders made a firm commitment to overcome the status quo, to seek equity and excellence, and worked actively to build commitment to that vision, even in the face of barriers. The board-superintendent team sets the tone in committing to high expectations for all students. It’s powerful when your board expresses a consistent belief that more is possible and when you communicate those expectations throughout the school district and community.

The board puts its commitment into action by:

  • Consistently communicating high expectations. The board ensures that high expectations are explicit in district statements of vision, mission, and beliefs and in standards, benchmarks, and curriculum. These expectations are evident in board members, administrators and staff who show by their words and, most importantly their action, their belief that all students can learn, and their faculty can teach, a challenging curriculum.
  • Establishing or approving goals and indicators of progress. The board sets the expectation for priority goals to be based on:
    • Engagement of administrative and staff leadership in the goal setting process.
    • Use of data and information to identify the greatest student learning need(s).
    • A focus on improving instruction and student learning in the areas of greatest need.
    • Identifying a narrow number of specific, measurable student learning goals and indicators of progress.
    • Establishing a plan for the ongoing staff evaluation of progress toward the student learning goals and a process to make adjustments as needed.
    • A plan for regularly reporting progress to staff, board and community.
  • Focusing on improving instruction. Because research is clear that quality instruction has the greatest impact on student learning, the school board ensures that the focus of the district is on improving classroom instruction as the key strategy for improving student learning.

Supporting Conditions for Successful Teaching and Learning

The board has a duty to match expectations for improvement with the supports needed to produce results. The board creates the conditions for success by:

  1. Showing commitment in board actions and decisions to allocate resources, ensuring that all parts of the system are aligned around the learning needs of students.
  2. Providing supports for quality, research-based professional development that provides teachers time to collaborate with other teachers to improve their instructional skills.
  3. Supporting and connecting with districtwide leaders at the board table to build broad-based commitment and focus throughout the system.
  4. Staying the course, allowing time for improvement efforts to work and addressing roadblocks along the way.

Holding the System Accountable for Student Learning Goals

  1. Using data extensively to make decisions at the board table and ensuring that quality data is used throughout the system as a planning and decision-making tool.
  2. Understanding and agreeing to clear indicators as evidence of progress and success.
  3. Monitoring progress regularly, holding regular, solution-oriented, supportive conversations at the board table with staff leadership on progress and on areas that need to improve.

Building Collective Commitment to Achieve Goals

The school board plays an essential role in creating commitment and desire to see improved results. That collective will to improve must be built within the staff and throughout the community. The board fulfills that role by:

  1. Creating widespread awareness and urgency of the need to improve, and the moral purpose of improvement to meet the needs of students and society.
  2. Instilling hope that it’s possible to change, that schools and districts are capable of putting in place research-based practices that produce improved results for students.
  3. Connecting with the community, sharing challenges and successes, providing information and data and engaging families, churches, businesses, civic and social organizations and government in frank discussions and ongoing efforts to encourage each facet of the community to fulfill its responsibility.

Learning Together as a Whole Board-Superintendent Team

If these board roles in improving student achievement sound important to you, you’re right! You’ve been elected to one of the most important jobs in education: school governance. Learning together as a board- superintendent team, coupled with deep conversations about implications of that learning for your district, is critical to building a shared focus strong enough to achieve long-term improvement efforts. The job of learning for a board is not to earn a degree in education. The board’s learning is around your role in the context of school improvement. It’s also about gaining big picture understanding and background, networking with other boards and learning from their successes and experiences.

To fulfill this important role, effective school boards:

  • Establish board learning time, commit agenda time around school improvement efforts and learn together in the context of the district’s goals and improvement initiatives.
  • Engage in deep conversations about the implications of their learning to build a shared focus through shared information and discussion.
  • Build a trusting and supportive relationship with the superintendent, in which both the board and superintendent develop a willingness to lead and nurture the leadership roles of each other.
  • Lead through thoughtful policy development, based on shared learning, to build momentum for change and to embed expectations for improvement in the culture of the system.
Ramona PowersKeeping Students First